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A trip to the Colombian desert

Recently, I spent a few days in the Guajira desert, in Colombia. The northernmost point of South America, a distant peninsula that reaches into the Atlantic Ocean, as if trying to break away from the continent it belongs to.

La Guajira’s geographic and cultural diversity is partly what makes this region special: it is home to the arid desert, but also to the lush forest of the mountainous Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It borders with Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea. Several Indigenous Peoples share this land of contrasts with the other ethnic and cultural groups that make up Colombian society.

It is one of the richest regions in Colombia in terms of resources. It produces and exports sea salt; it has large reserves of natural gas and many coal and gold mines. The largest coal export port in South America, Puerto Bolívar, is located in the region. The paradox is that, despite such intense industrial activity, La Guajira is also the second poorest department in the country, after Chocó.

This poverty becomes visible as soon as I cross the border of the region and more acute as I near the desert. I drive as far as Ríohacha, a pretty coastal town with a long windswept beach, clear water and swaying palm trees. I am advised not to go any further in my car alone, for reasons of both safety and the difficult desert terrain, so I leave my van in Ríohacha and join a tour group of five people in a Jeep.

As we leave Ríohacha behind, the distance between the villages increases and infrastructure becomes scarcer. Through the windows of the Jeep, we watch the vast empty desert slide past, spotted here and there by large white patches of sea salt. The paved road goes as far as Maicao, one of the towns closest to Venezuela, but doesn’t follow the coastal route we take, a wide, dusty gravel road. Large trucks speed along it, lifting clouds of dust that engulf the cyclists and bikers. Many of these trucks carry huge tanks of drinking water, reminding me of what people told me about the water problem in La Guajira: there is a serious issue of access to water for the local population.

It is common for water to be scarce in the desert. What is surprising is when, despite being aware that the communities living in said desert have no real access to water, the government fails to offer a solution. It is a complex situation that I know little about, so what I can write are only my impressions.

I had been told about an enormous coal mine in the desert. On the way to Cabo de la Vela, I learned it is called Cerrejón, that it is an open-pit mine that employs many people in the surrounding area and that it is an important operation for the Colombian economy. I also discovered that the mine has been in the spotlight on several occasions: having been accused of environmental and social crimes, the multinational is being investigated by the OECD, and UN human rights experts have repeatedly called for its closure. The multinational has also been accused of grabbing and deviating water from the Ranchería River, the main source of water for the native Wayuu People and where they traditionally establish their villages. And now, following an agreement between Colombian president Iván Duque and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, it seems likely that the Cerrejón mega-project will continue to expand its activity by increasing coal exports to Germany in order to strengthen energy security and make up for the shortages caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

This is one of the many and complex reasons why, as we approach Cabo de la Vela, I witness the aforementioned poverty in the form of ragged, barefoot children racing across the vast nothingness of the desert as fast as their leg short legs can carry them, trying to catch up with the cars to ask their passengers for some food or a few coins. The drivers guarantee the failure of the children’s mission by stepping on the accelerator to escape the vivid image of misery as fast as possible and reach the tourist destination of Cabo de la Vela.

As we continue driving towards the desert, the terrain becomes more difficult and the roads less defined. I am surprised by how varied the desert landscape is: we drive across vast flat plains where the heat creates mirages, giving us the impression that there is water where there is none; up and down steep, rocky cactus-covered hills; along dusty white paths, salt flats, past lakes of muddy shores and turquoise waters and winding orange trails flanked by enormous coral boulders and prancing goats. As we drive along the unmarked roads, I think I made the right decision to leave my car back in Ríohacha.

Wilber, our driver, is from Ríohacha. He has spent the past forty years driving in the desert. He tells us about his youth, travelling those routes with his father, transporting the produce of every kind delivered, by land, air and sea to La Guajira’s solitary coastline. He tells us about the Wayuu, the indigenous people of this land, from his perspective. He informs us that Wayuunaki is the official language of the region, together with Spanish; that the traditional professions of the Wayuu are fishing and crafting beautiful, colourful hammocks and bags of complex designs; that they practice arranged marriage and that when young girls get their period for the first time, they follow the tradition of shaving their heads and locking themselves up until their hair grows back. He informs us that the Wayuu people also participated, benefitted from and suffered the contraband freely practiced on the Caribbean coast for years.

As we drive, we are faced with a reality we would rather not see, but which our unforgiving eyes force us to witness: the Wayuu men, women and children standing in the middle of the desert, requesting a fee from every tourist vehicle that transits through their territory. To collect the fee, they create improvised tolls: a rope or a chain, tied to two sticks placed at either side of the road that force the cars to come to a stop.

When the cars reach the toll, our driver impatiently drives up to the chain; the Wayuu child, woman or −rarely− man guarding the toll approaches the window; the driver sticks his hand out to offer food (sweets, crackers or bags of water); the guard accepts the offer, or not, and proceeds to untie the rope and drop it to the ground, allowing the car to drive on for another few hundred meters, where it encounters the same situation again.

Most tolls (I calculated that over the course of two days we must have passed over 100) are guarded by children. When there are no adults around, the drivers often treat the children disrespectfully, throwing the food out the window, making the kids run and collect it from the ground. The children’s expressions reflect their age: the younger ones turn this dynamic into a game, competing and racing each other to grab the food. From the age of eight or nine, however, the kids' faces are marked by the same expression we also see on their mothers, fathers and grandparents: a mix of rage, frustration, anger, hatred, disgust, as they bend to pick up the compulsory fee that every foreigner must pay to enter their territory. Sometimes, the drivers trick them, making them drop the rope by pretending to throw the food out the window, without actually doing so. These exchanges, the look of deep resentment on the faces of these individuals make me shiver. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t. I feel obliged to watch, to at least try to unravel the senselessness of this perverse system of dependence. Every effect has a cause.

Time and a conversation allow us to at least try. The group in the car (four young Colombians from Bogotá, a young German, Wilber and I) talk about what we see. My initial reaction is to blame the tourism companies: we must demand more responsibility from them. It is unacceptable that sweets is what they bring to these communities where children still die of hunger (according to Colombia’s National Health Institute, since 2014, 578 Colombian children under the age of five died from causes associated to malnutrition. In 2020, 25% of these deaths occurred in La Guajira; in 2021, this percentage rose to 35%). Sweets are easy to purchase and transport, but they clearly won't solve the dietary needs of the population. Ale is a nurse from Bogotá; her response to my reaction is ‘we cannot demand without giving’. What she is saying is that each of us must teach by example. That starts a conversation about accountability. We try to answer the question: who is responsible for the situation the Wayuu find themselves in, depending on outsiders? Different opinions are expressed:

  • Wilber, who has been working in the region for many years, thinks that the Wayuu are disorganised and lazy, and that the reason they are lacking basic services is their own lack of effort and organisation. He insists on the employment opportunities that the mine offers, the growing tourism industry and the fishing trade that the Wayuu have traditionally practiced.

  • Esteban says that witnessing the Wayuu context has led him to demystify Indigenous Peoples; before, he used to think they were the victims of discrimination and abandonment, but now he has come to think that it is their responsibility to organise in order to overcome the challenges they face, to promote tourism in a more structured manner and not to participate in the game of dependence and corruption.

  • Ale gives the example of her mother, who comes from a family displaced by the violent conflict that has long destabilised Colombia. She tells us that her mother used to walk for 3 hours to get to school. What Ale is saying is that, to overcome a challenge, we must be willing to take action, not just wait around for somebody else to provide the solution.

  • Cristian thinks that the Wayuu are in no way responsible for their situation, because nobody chooses to be poor. He thinks it is the responsibility of the Colombian government, whose obligation it is to serve its citizens and guarantee the fulfillment of their rights. He says it is easy to state that people should work in whatever jobs are available, but that, if the only work available exploits the workers, it is understandable that people choose any other alternative available, including charity.

  • Catalina states that what we see is a reflection of the corruption that exists at every political and economic level in Colombian society and which prevents all citizens from enjoying equal rights.

We each have different opinions and we’re missing the most important perspective, that of the Wayuu. I unsuccessfully attempt to grasp the complexity of the situation. It occurs to me that we are being simplistic in our analysis. To state that the Wayuu are responsible for their situation, that the solution is in their hands and that it is simply a matter of organising themselves, is to ignore the cultural and ethnic diversity that defines Colombia and the specific conditions of life in the desert, where communication and transport are a challenge. The Wayuu people have an organisational model, but it does not correspond to that of a modern neoliberal society. From what I could glimpse, their community centres around family.

It is equally limiting to blame the tourism companies operating in the territory. We could demand that they change their practices: that, instead of sweets, they take grains or fruit to these communities. But there is no guarantee the Wayuu would accept these changes. I witnessed how, in the driest part of the country, where the population’s main challenge is access to water, people turn down a bag of drinking water, or take it reluctantly. In this context, Wilber is the one who represents the tour company and bears the burden of carefully negotiating such a delicate situation. Although it would be positive for the tourism industry to be inclusive and promote the enrichment and development of the local population, even the smallest of changes are difficult to implement. That is why these small changes must be part of a much broader plan of action that tackles the root of the problems.

Creating a broad plan like that requires identifying the root problems first. Based more than anything on my impressions as a traveller, I would point to discrimination based on ethnicity, class and race, in addition to climate change and the corruption as some of the factors that cause the Wayuu to depend on outsiders. Next, we must answer the question, Who is responsible for providing a solution to these problems? The logical answer would be the government. The truth is that although many initiatives to solve La Guajira's social problems have been launched, they have not managed to solve the problem. This is partly due to the corruption that permeates Colombian politics and partly because, instead of tackling the root of the problems, these initiatives have tended towards a localised, problem-specific approach.

An example of this is a project promoted during Juan Manuel Santos’ term. Its objective was to provide the Wayuu communities with drinking water, thanks to an innovative system of underground wells connected to solar panels, motor pumps and a desalinisation plant that was to provide drinking water. But of the 29 plants initially built, today 27 of them are practically useless, because there was no follow-up after the installation, nor was technical assistance or training offered to the local population.

When politicians do not offer real solutions, sometimes the private companies operating in the territory take over that role. In La Guajira, the Cerrejón mine built some of the schools that the Wayuu children attend. It would be naive to believe this initiative comes from a true willingness to improve the lives of the population. The aim of this company is to make a profit. These are strategic actions to keep the community happy, while continuing to exploit their workforce and resources.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to leave social development in the hands of the private sector. It is what allows a businessman to arrive at the salt mines in Manaure, also in La Guajira, and force producers to cut the price of salt by three, without giving them or the local politicians a say in the decision. No form of protest is possible, on the part of the local politicians, because their interests are linked to those of the business class, and on the part of the producers, because they depend on selling their produce, not to the best buyer, but to the buyer with most influence over the political class.

These situations make me think that, in the case of the Wayuu, the problem, beyond poverty ‒which can be defined differently according to perspective‒, is the dependence on which our social and economic model is based. The Wayuu depend on the charity of external actors, salt producers depend on the business class who, in turn, depend on the politicians who should be a reflection of society, but who are actually part and a reflection of the elite. Which is why, for decades, Colombian politics has favoured the business and elite classes, ignoring the principle of equal rights and opportunities for all citizens.

This model of dependence is inherited from the most powerful political and financial circles. It is based on the neoliberal practices imposed by the large financial institutions, which reinforce dependence at the level of government, the economy and society, while disencouraging competition on equal terms and diversification.

I was moved by the Guajira desert, the beauty of its inhospitable appearance that harbours such diversity. The rawness of its people and their living conditions shocked me. It strikes me that we are all victims of the socioeconomic model we live in, although some suffer it more than others. For the moment, thinking about it is enough while I continue to travel.

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